An Incursion Into Duality: On Travel and What If in Nova Scotia

Words by Aaron Gerry
Photos by Aaron Gerry

I punched the gas to catch my next breath. It felt like a child grasping at the last strands of a balloon slipping through their fingers.

The engine thundered, wind lashed against the moving steel, and the howling eventually faded into a background hum. Every so often an insect splat against the windshield like the *tack tack* of a small pebble thrown against a bedroom window. Funny how little surprises alight the imagination, no?

They say some people use travel to run away. I’m not sure, but it can help to break a spell. Partly, I’d been holding air for awhile and needed a breather.

In any case, the sun was high and I was on my way to Nova Scotia to take a next step in my writing career: A well known climbing magazine commissioned me for a piece about island bouldering off the coast of the peninsula. Unexpectedly, I was also invited on a press trip to the Northumberland Shore of the Province. It makes you wonder about chance and opportunity.

Tack tack thwack.

Nova Scotia is an eleven hour drive from Boston if you go fast. And I wanted to go fast. The highways gave way to old farming town back roads and I left dust and flattened woolly bear caterpillars in my wake.

Canada was howling. It was as if a mountain sighed and thrust me forward on a sled of cool air. September was passing through to October, when the atmosphere is full of shoulder season uncertainty and each day hangs in the balance between past and future. Latitudinal elevation meant leaves were turning from grocery aisle green to fading carbonara. On this trip, all roads led to the end of land. Or launching points.

Sometimes travel feels like an incursion into “what if?” Possibilities are laid bare in condensed time.

Dover Island

“You call me if you need anything and I’ll come get you,” he urged as I threw my backpack and crashpad ashore. It’s unsafe to climb alone out here, was insinuated but left unsaid. Rod puttered back to his home in an aluminum fishing jon, waving once or twice for good measure.

“Thanks,” I said, appreciating the sentiment but planning to ignore it.

What is it about a disinclination for help? Turns out I’d need to call.

For three days I’d have the island to myself for nothing but climbing and contemplation. I’d eat, shower and shit there (to be packed out, of course).

Dover Island is known as Nova Scotia’s granite playground. The uninhabited rocky mass harbors over 100 problems from V0 to V11, making it Atlantic Canada’s highest concentration of coastal bouldering. Yet, it’s little known, hence my reportage. The closest dock is in West Dover, a one-street hamlet home to about 375 people, and which is about an hour southwest of Halifax, or a ten minute boat ride from the island.

On shore and all alone, I fancied myself Achilles gunning up goat paths among any number of greek islands. I crested a ridge and like a movie scene opening up to a surprise attack, the Atlantic sucker punched me. I stumbled forward as much from gawking as the loose footing. There ahead was all ocean, vast as hell with just a thin sliver of rock like a boardwalk. I thought, if a tsunami hit I’d be a goner.

“I’ve seen waves wash up over it during hurricanes,” Rod had said of the island, when we were peering from his dock.

A storm was expected in two days. It might be wise to cut the trip short. But I’d driven all this way…

The stone was sharp and immaculate. There were diminutive cliff bands which curved like parabolas, dislodged boulders shaped as steps, and worn paths etched from bygone eras. I explored from end to end to find micro-environments, two mink, and no deer (though it was alleged). It felt like waking up to discover you are the last human on earth. During the day the sun was unimpeded, harsh and beautiful.

That night I dreamed of a land invasion. Wetsuit soldiers came ashore, and I swore I heard trampling boots by my head and garbled whispering. Then it was mink gnawing at my fingertips. If someone else was around we’d have a laugh and a drink about it.

Instead, it was cold and hazy. Waves were crashing monomaniacally. Everything was damp.

I thought I had come for isolation, but the truth is it would be nice to see people again.

The next day the skies darkened, and the storm came sooner than expected. I made for higher ground with the hope that texts would send from a near dead phone and weak signal. I was picked up a few hours before sundown by a man true to his word.


The North Shore

The engine light came on but I kept driving.

I had recently learned about coal ash deposits leaching into groundwater and rivers in Appalachia. The long-term health damage to the local people could have been avoided with some minor upfront considerations. Instead, companies with pathways to Scott Pruitt and short-term concerns disavowed low-cost pre-emptive interventions. They would end up paying $100s of millions in remunerative damages years later, eliminating all profits and then some in course. Of course.

So I continued without a thought for the future.

The destination was a lodge at the edge of the Northern Shore where Babe Ruth once batted about. It overlooks a strait of calm waters with a long lobster season and bald eagles that are known to feast on seagulls. The rain gave way enroute.

A group of six on the tour sat down to dinner next to the warmest seashore north of the Carolinas. Cameras came out from the professionals and each dish was captured on film and instagram handles. Honey-glazed mixed with bulb flashes.

I didn’t know what to expect. But it was fun to be among fellow writers.

The year so far had been about managing expectations and continuity. When was the last time I did something out of the ordinary?

Tack tack thwack.

Our press trip would be four days of tracking along the coast and trending through history from the first Scottish settlements to the advent of modern Canada. We rode around in a party bus (“actually, it’s a ‘luxury bus,’” clarified Gerard MacIsaac, the owner and operator), the neon lights shifting between a bulk pack of glow stick incandescence.

Along the way we met immigrants who escaped tragedy, expats who sought better living, and descendants of the original Highlanders who migrated aboard the Hector to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773. These founders would go on to forge the foundation of industrial Canada for centuries to come.

Sometimes travel feels like an incursion into “what if?”

The trip was about living-dualism: Isolation and others, nature and humanity, guided and freeflow.

Possibilities are laid bare in condensed time.

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